Mark’s China Blog worth a visit

I’ve been reading this blog recently and strongly recommend you go take a look. He obviously puts a lot of thought and work into it, and manages to keep his posts consistently interesting and intelligent, with just enough point of view to give it the sizzle a good blog needs. I wish I had read his piece on Pingyao 48 hours ago, before I decided to skip the city and head back directly to Beijing from Xi’an.


Home stretch in Xi’an

We ran into some light rain in Chengdu after nearly 10 days of perfect weather; Xi’an however, is cold and wet, sleet turning the sidewalks into slippery black puddles. I didn’t come to Xi’an to sightsee (I was here before in 2003 to do that). It’s been about research for a new project I’m working on, and in terms of actually reaching some of my work goals, it was the highlight of the trip. (In terms of fun, it loses by a long shot to Yunnan.) I actually think I’m getting somewhere. Along with the work, Xi’an has also been about the best dumplings and yangrouchuanr I’ve had in my life, anywhere.

Short thoughts about Chengdu and Chongqing: Chengdu is as relaxed and as civilized as they say. Chongqing is a teeming, frenetic, hysterical mass of development and anarchy and impossibly random construction. Needless to say, I loved Chongqing, and liked Chengdu. The latter was a little too civilized for me, with things closing relatively early and the city generally lacking the breathlessness of Chongqing, or even Kunming.

Back in the real world…. Suddenly work opportunities have jumped from few to several, not all of them set in stone, but at least things are looking positive for the future. At the same time, I hear from my twitter friends recently that out-of-work Westerners are arriving in droves to Beijing to take advantage of the relative work glut, real or imagined. A lot of the young Westerners arriving FOB don’t know anything about China’s visa policies, or anything else about China, but this is the Last Great Hope, according to my friends. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare, and what their presence means for freelancers here like me (like lower fees and greater competition for work as China becomes the biggest buyers’ market on the planet).

There’s no question now that MNCs are continuing to place even more hope and investment in China, accelerating their efforts to the clicheed fever pitch as they strive, maybe a bit desperately, to tap into “the final frontier.” The thinking seems to be this is the last possible bright spot on a planet consumed in a morass of economic chaos, confusion and despair. (Their thinking, not necessarily mine.) Time will as usual tell if they’re right, but as far as bets go, this one doesn’t seem too insane to me.

I wanted to meet friends for business in Guangzhou and Shanghai next, but time is running out and I really want to see Pingyao. On the other hand, it will be freezing in Pingyao, and Guangzhou will be a relative paradise of tropical breezes. And I really should see those business associates in Shanghai. So once again I’m using my blog as a sounding board to help me figure out what to do next.

Update: I’m probably going to go back to Beijing early. Enough travel; ever since Lisa went west and I went east two days ago I’ve sort of lost interest and feel it’s time to get back to Beijing. Work to do, promises to keep, etc.


Sichuan nights

Just arrived with Lisa in Chengdu and am amazed that we found a hotel for 270 RMB a night with flat-panel TV, bathrobes, Internet and everything else. 278 kuai! And the prostitute offering “massagey” courteously called my room at 9pm, unlike the one in Chongqing last night who called at midnight, ruining my sleep. (I hung up on the caller last night; tonight I simply said I didn’t understand Chinese and politely wished the silky-voiced lady goodnight.) The train from Chongqing was 100 RMB; I think the total trip will cost about $800 including transportation, hotels and meals. There is still someplace on the planet where you can travel dirt-cheap and have an amazing time.

We met some great people in Chongqing (more on that and other trip details in a later post), and got to see the city that most resembles the world Ridley Scott created for Bladerunner. A bit frightening, the sheer size and impersonal feel of the city, but it’s also teeming with life and optimism, even now. I’m afraid they are in for some very rude shocks soon (construction is everything in Chongqing) but I also think they’ll see it through, after a whole lot of agony.

Spent much of yesterday writing an emergency speech for a client. This is really what I’d like to do the rest of my life – do freelance work and explore the world.

Details about the trip to follow. Please note, comments are still being screened, so if your insights don’t appear right away, be patient.

Last observation: I miss Yunnan. I love every city we got to, but Yunnan is the place that most captured my heart (again). I can live and work in Kunming forever. I’m in love.


Commodities plunge, gold soars

I took heat in other threads for maintaining that gold was more currency than commodity; you can always sell it and use it, in effect, as a currency. Thus, as true commodities like oil and copper deflate, gold goes up during times of economic uncertainty. No, you can’t buy a candy bar with it, but gold is always, always the safe haven during a crisis, and if this isn’t a crisis…. I think this theory holds water.

Meanwhile the dollar is doing great, for now. That’s not due to any great faith in the US economy, rather to the awfulness of other currencies (have you checked the Euro lately?). When the auto industry goes belly-up in April, the dollar will crash, hard.

Investors have taken to terming the flight from risky assets into gold a new currency trade. The ongoing concern about the enormous task of getting the world’s banks on track — bedeviling investors across the globe — has produced a safe-haven trade into the likes of Treasurys and the dollar. However, the dollar’s success is, in some ways, a mirage, improving only because other major world currencies have been dreadful.

The dollar has strengthened in the last couple of months, along with gold, which is an odd occurrence, and speaks to the dearth of worthy investments around the world. But the shift to gold has picked up as “everyone is trying to devalue their own currency against everyone else,” says Sean Peche, manager at BlueAlpha Investment Advisory Limited in London.

Gold is nearing its highs from last summer.

That explains the dollar’s strength of late, one founded on risk aversion. Since the beginning of the year, the dollar has gained 9.5% against the euro and 2.3% against the pound, while gold, in dollar terms, is up 9.4%. The yellow metal closed up $25.50 to $967 an ounce Tuesday, highest since July 17, 2008. “Gold is telling you the dollar’s rally is not going to continue,” says Lance Lewis, fund manager at Lewis Capital Partners.

Please fasten your seatbelts. Gold is going to $2,000. I know, I have no idea what I’m talking about, as my earlier posts indicate. It was 880 when I last posted about it two weeks ago; now it’s near 1,000.

Dali is like heaven. It wasn’t on our agenda, we sort of stumbled here, and don’t want to leave. Onto Chongqing tonight.


Life and death in Kunming

Today, Lisa and I went to the Stone Forest, but we didn’t sight-see or go on a tour or spend a lot of time there (less than an hour, actually). Lisa had something to attend to, and I stood in silence as she completed her mission. It probably only took a minute, even less, but it seemed like a long time. (If any of that sounds mysterious, you must read Lisa’s post; only she can tell this story.)

On to a more mundane aspect of the day – mundane, and yet perhaps as unforgettable for both Lisa and me as was opening the hongbao and emptying its contents in Shilin.

When we set out from Kunming to the Stone Forest, we were too late to catch the bus as planned. A hawker by the bus station told us they could take us there and back for 400 kuai. We walked up to a taxi driver first and asked how much she would charge, and she said 500 kuai. When we told her the gypsy cab would take us for 400 she warned us it would be unsafe. The hawker stepped over, told us they would reduce the price to 350, and we went with them. A serious mistake.

The black VW looked fine, and there was no trouble getting to our destination, about an hour away. It was only when we tried to return that the trouble started, and not until we had reached the outskirts of the city. It was about 5.30 and I was falling asleep in the back seat when I heard Lisa say in Chinese to the driver that something was wrong. I thought she meant she saw an accident; I had no idea she was saying something was wrong with our car. We were still on the highway, and cars were whizzing by us. I realized we had stalled, and the driver was frantically trying to restart the engine. to no avail. It was a four-lane highway and we were in the third lane, smack in the middle, and cars and trucks and buses were coming at us from all sides. I looked out the back window and saw a tractor trailer careening toward us and Lisa and I quickly concluded that we had to get out of there.

As the truck and cars approached and suddenly realized we were stopped, they slammed on their brakes, swerved into the surrounding lanes and pounded on thir horns. It was a scene of perfect anarchy and chaos. The driver got out and lifted the hood of the car, which at least signaled to the approaching cars that we were stopped. When we had a chance, we bolted from the car, ran across the fourth lane and stood pressed against the median divider. Trucks kept coming at us, slamming on their horns, no doubt mystified to see two laowai standing in the middle of a busy highway in the middle of nowhere looking totally dazed and confused. A police car, seemingly oblivious, sped right past us.

The next scene was even more surreal. An older fellow on a motorcycle saw the commotion, stood on the shoulder and motioned to Lisa and me to cross the highway to get to safety in the shoulder. We quickly discussed the viability of this suggestion, and decided it would almost certainly lead to our deaths. “I did not expect the day to end like this,” Lisa said. Cars and trucks were still racing past us, some only inches away and in every lane. The motorcycle driver saw we couldn’t possibly cross by ourselves and took matters into his own hands. He zig-zagged diagonally across the four lanes ad reached us. Then he told us to follow him. He held out his hand like a traffic officer, and guided us across the road, using his motorcycle as a buffer between us and the approaching traffic. Horns blared, driver shouted from their windows, but they all stopped and let us cross. We made it to the shoulder alive. By this point we were laughing. We weren’t laughing as we stood pressed against the divider.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver and some other good samaritans managed to push the taxi to the shoulder. He wanted his 350 kuai and Lisa screamed in Chinese he hadn’t kept his side of the bargain – no way were we going to pay full fare. I gave him 300 kuai, in retrospect too much (were were still at least half an hour from the hotel). When Lisa shouted in Chinese, the motorcycle driver laughed out loud and told us for a mere 10 kuai he’d drive us off the highway to a place where we could catch a taxi. It sounded like an excellent bargain, even though driving for ten minutes on the highway with two others on one motorcycles is not something I want to do again anytime soon.

Bottom line: after a day that was dramatic enough already, this seemed like an eerily appropriate ending, “the perfect bookend,” as Lisa remarked once we were out of harm’s way. We both kept thinking of the first taxi driver’s warning that these gypsy cabs aren’t safe….

Meanwhile, we’ve changed plans a bit, staying a day longer in Kunming, and deciding to go to Dali tomorrow, and then to Chengdu. Chongqing is something we are still debating. Some friends tell us it’s not really worth the time unless you have a few days to explore the surrounding countryside. We don’t have that much time, but would still like to go there for at least a day or two. Is it worth it?

Final words: Everyone seems to agree that Kunming is one of the most enjoyable and relaxed cities in all of China, and I want to say they’re right. Aside from the highway insanity, every minute here has been magical. The food is beyond belief and as cheap as food can be without being free. The people seem unhurried, laid back and eager to help lost foreigners. I could retire here. Today. Lisa says the only place in China even more relaxed is Chengdu; I’ll find out in a few days. A near-perfect trip so far. But no more gypsy cabs.

Oh, I deleted the earlier post because the link I offered wasn’t working. It’s late. I probably won’t post for a few days.

Update: Forgot to mention we had brunch with a reader of this blog today, and will meet other readers along the way. That this silly hobby can put us in touch with such awesome people….

Update 2: For a far more detailed look at what we went through, complete with photos, go here.


Return to China

Please leave this site now and go to this site to read this post.

Lisa and I will be traveling through China for the next couple of weeks, leaving Beijing on Saturday. Reading about why she’s here is a beautiful story.

In the meantime, if any of you will be around the following places and want to meet up for coffee or a meal please send me an email:


(The last two stops are for business, just me.)

Repeat: Read this post. Awesome. Too good for a blog.


The ugliest building in the world?

Kind of fitting that it should be in Pyongyang. It gets my vote.


CCTV admits responsibility for Mandarin Oriental fire

The Mandarin Oriental Beijing hotel was destroyed by an unlicensed fireworks display set off by CCTV itself.

State TV company apologizes for Beijing fire

BEIJING – China’s state-run television broadcaster apologized Tuesday for an unlicensed fireworks display that sparked a blaze that destroyed a luxury hotel in the network’s headquarters complex in downtown Beijing.

The fire, which sent off huge plumes of black smoke and showered the ground with embers, left one firefighter dead and a handful of others injured, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The blaze was put out early Tuesday after burning for more than five hours at the unfinished Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Xinhua quoted Luo Yuan, a spokesman for the Beijing fire department, as saying that fireworks set off to celebrate the Lunar New Year were to blame for the fire that destroyed the nearly finished Mandarin Oriental hotel.

He was quoted as saying CCTV had hired a fireworks company to ignite several hundred large fireworks in an open area by the hotel. Video footage posted on Youtube showed spectacular bursts of fireworks above the top of the building in downtown Beijing.

“According to the Beijing fire department, this fire occurred because the person in charge of the construction of the new building project of CCTV, without permission, hired staff to set off fireworks that violated regulations,” China Central Television said in a statement on its Web site.

CCTV said it was deeply grieved “for the severe damage the fire caused to the country’s property.”

At lunch a few hours ago I was discussing with a friend the possibility of ordinary fireworks sold on the street having the force to set a skyscraper on fire. We both agreed it was more likely a professional display gone awry.

Heads are going to roll.

Update: I guess we now know why Xinhua sent out instructions last night to minimize and spin the story:


To all websites: Report related to the Fire in the CCTV new building, please only use Xinhua news report. No photo, no video clip, no in-depth report; the news should be put on news area only, close the comment posts, don’t top the forum blogpost, don’t recommend posts related with the subject.

Another textbook example of CCP cover-upping.


Chinese online media coverage of last night’s fire

Strangest thing. China Daily, Shanghai Daily and Xinhua (to name the first ones I’ve checked) seem to have minimized mention of the Mandarin Oriental’s destruction. Go to their home pages now and see. China Daily only has a reference to the story on its list of recent articles if you look hard enough, and the story it takes you to has no photo. Xinhua had one of the earliest articles out about the fire, with photos, and that, too, has been 100 percent scrubbed from the home page, though it’s still up on their site (which is of little use if you don’t know the link).

Similarly, the CCTV-9 home page only references the fire, with no mention of the hotel name, in the list of breaking stories; no story or photo on the home page, just photos of the moon and pretty red lanterns. The link takes you to a very brief story, with photo, that does admit the fire was caused by illegal fireworks.

A spokesman for the Beijing Municipal government says initial investigations showed the fire had been caused by illegal launch of fireworks. Firefighters found remnants of fireworks on the southern roof of the burning building.

China Smack says it didn’t take long for China’s propagandistsmedia specialists to start censoring reports, locking online threads and removing photos.

Really disappointing. You’d think this would lead everywhere, and it’s ironic there’s more coverage in the international papers. As usual, this approach has to backfire, making the world wonder why the government would downplay the story and censor photos of a hotel fire. Which seems to me like an excellent question.

Update: From the hotel’s web site:

Statement in response to the fire at the development site of Mandarin Oriental, Beijing
Mandarin Oriental, Beijing was scheduled to open in the summer of 2009. The property currently employs 60 staff, all of whom work in pre-opening offices near to the hotel, which were empty at the time of the fire. Mandarin Oriental has signed a long-term contract to manage the hotel and has no ownership interest in the building. Our local management team are doing all they can to help the authorities to ensure the safety and security of everyone involved. It is too early at the present stage to assess the damage, but we will make further updates as soon as we have more information.

Update 2: Fireman dies from breathing in toxic chemical fumes while fighting the blaze.

Update 3: CCTV admits the fire was their fault; Xinhua directive on censoring/minimizing the story published.


Playing with fire: Mandarin Oriental Beijing destroyed

I was at the Bookworm tonight with friends, playing in the weekly quiz night (which, incidentally, we won), when the emcee told the audience that the new hotel next to the CCTV towers was in flames. We didn’t know if he was joking or not. Now I see he wasn’t joking.

From PanYi

From PanYi

The hotel is the Mandarin Oriental, and the cause was sparks caused by fireworks.

Anyone in Beijing tonight can tell you about the orgiastic explosions that rocked the city from 5pm to midnight setting off car alarms and leaving deep piles of debris on every street. Fireworks on the last night of CNY are always a very big deal here. Hastily set-up fireworks shops can be found everywhere, and they sell fireworks to people of all ages. Monitors with red armbands parade their neighborhoods to make sure people are using them safely. But something went very wrong tonight.

The Mandarin Oriental hotel caught fire sometime before 9 p.m. (1300 GMT) as the skies above the Chinese capital were filled with exploding fireworks — part of celebrations of the lantern festival that follows the Lunar New Year.

The entire hotel building was engulfed in flames, sending off huge plumes of black smoke and showering the ground below with embers. At least seven fire crews were on the scene and police held back crowds of onlookers and closed a nearby elevated highway to ensure safety.

Li Jian said he saw smoke arising from the 44-story hotel’s roof shortly after a huge burst of fireworks showered it with sparks, though it was not clear if they started the fire.

“Smoke came out for a little while but then it just started burning,” Li said….

Beijing usually tightly restricts the use of fireworks in the downtown area, but waives the rules each year during the Lunar New Year holiday. Monday, the final day of the exemption period, marked the first full moon since the Lunar New Year, and massive fireworks barrages exploded between buildings and in open spaces throughout the city.

Erik Amir a senior architect at building designers OMA said the fire had destroyed years of hard work.
“It really has been a rough six-seven years for architects who worked on this project,” said Amir, who rushed to the site after hearing of the fire.

“I think it’s really sad that this building is destroyed before it can be opened to the public,” he said.

This is right around the corner from my office; I passed by the hotel every day for nearly two years as it was being built.

So I had to ask myself: Should Beijing reconsider giving everyone the right to set off fireworks as they see fit during CNY? I’m just asking. I realize how difficult it would be to enforce a ban on fireworks when they are so much a part of the culture, and I don’t know if it would even be possible. I also don’t know whether tonight’s disaster was caused by amateurs lighting off fireworks for fun, or by a professional putting on a display for the public. I suppose we’ll find out the details soon enough.

But tonight is a reminder: fireworks can kill and destroy when they’re not used right. Should they be as freely distributed as tissue paper?

Update: Great live coverage from David Feng.

Eerily beautiful, frightening video footage here.

Update: China’s censors minimizing the story and blocking photos?

Update: CCTV admits fire was caused by their own illegal fireworks.